Remember the bizarre daycare center “ritual abuse” trials of the eighties–the McMartin case in Los Angeles, the Little Rascals case in Edenton, North Carolina, the Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey? According to Debbie Nathan, whose excellent book Satan’s Silence (co-written with Michael Snedeker) remains an indispensable guide to the ritual-abuse panic and its many psychosocial sources, most of the more than 100 people locked up during that mania have been quietly released. The Amiraults, a whole family convicted and sent to prison in Massachusetts, haven’t been so lucky. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court has allowed their convictions to stand, ruling that despite flaws in their trial, the case demanded “finality.”
The Amiraults’ ordeal, which began in 1984, is a textbook example of nuttiness and injustice. As in other cases, the techniques used to extract accusations, considered at the time to be exquisitely attuned to the psychology of small children, now look plainly manipulative and coercive. “Believe the children,” the well-intentioned mantra of all these prosecutions, turned out to mean “disbelieve the children until they ‘disclose.'” The common-sensical objections brushed aside by prosecutors, journalists and a public eager to credit the wildest allegations, now look, well, common-sensical: Daycare centers are crowded places, with parents and other adults dropping in unexpectedly; how could the elaborately weird alleged crimes have taken place unobserved? Across the country daycare workers were accused of such things as playing the piano naked, killing animals, tying a child to a tree in the front yard, flying through the air and burying children alive. Today, thanks largely to the work of psychologists distressed by the trials, children in sex-abuse cases are interviewed in a much more open-ended way, and the interviews are videotaped–which perhaps explains why there hasn’t been a prosecution for ritualized sexual sadism at a daycare center in a decade.
Violet Amirault had run the well-respected Fells Acres Day School in Malden for eighteen years with a staff that included her children, Cheryl Amirault LeFave and Gerald Amirault. One day in April of 1984, Gerald changed the pants of a 4-year-old boy who had wet himself. By the end of the summer, after months of questioning by his mother, his uncle and a therapist, the boy told his mother that he had been sexually abused by Gerald every day in a “secret room.” In the resultant furor, police told parents to quiz their children for details of abuse–“magic rooms,” “secret rooms,” “bad clowns”–and not to take No for an answer. The kids first denied such things, but eventually Susan Kelley, a pediatric nurse, hectored and nudged them into staggering allegations–porn photo sessions, talking robots, anal rape with knives. No child, including the first, ever made a spontaneous charge. No secret room was ever found, and no kiddie porn either. Symptoms presented as physical evidence of abuse turned out to be commonplace in nonabused children.
Prior to the police alert, no parent suspected anything was wrong, and no parent whose kids had attended the school in earlier years ever came forward with a similar story. The “believe the children” mantra was selectively applied: Other teachers were implicated by the children but were never charged. Gerald Amirault was convicted in 1986 and sentenced to thirty to forty years in prison; his mother and sister got eight to twenty years each. (A detailed file on the case can be found at www.ultranet.com/~kyp/amirault.html.)